Mad Props – Handouts for Your Pulp Horror Game

Posted in EpicTable Blog on January 18, 2008 at 1:53 am

evil octopusIf you play Call of Cthulhu or another game with a pulp horror setting, you’re going to like this….

I’ve recently stumbled upon a site with all sorts of Lovecraftian props, and it’s a good thing I did. Why? To my horror, I discovered that mine was not the first brilliant mind to consider an article about using props in your pen-and-paper roleplaying game.

“Props for the Peeps” already does a good job of presenting the idea, and there’s a fair number of props-related articles at Treasure Tables. Briefly, though, props are essentially “in-character items” that you pass out to the players—maps, letters, old photographs, as well as three-dimensional things like jewelry, potion bottles, or disturbing idols.

(In fact, now that I think about it, I have a friend, Scot Drew, who actually wrote an article about props for RPGs a few years ago. I may have received an uncomfortable email if I’d written an article on props, forgetting that I probably, on some level, stole the idea from him. In recognition of my near-theft, I can at least mention that Scot was a contributor to Atlas Games’ En Route and Fantasy Bestiary, and is the only person I know who has had one of his monsters made into a mini—the Bortha.


Props and Virtual Tabletops

Okay, so if I can’t dazzle anyone with the suggestion that they use props in their game, what about this (non-Euclidean and therefore horrifying) angle? Using props with a virtual tabletop has some advantages. Besides saving trees, you get the benefit of all the players’ being able to read them at once. If you have five players sitting around a physical table, it’s a bit of a drag on the game having them pass around the intercepted letter from the Big Bad Evil Guy to his henchman. True the 3-D props don’t work as well over a virtual tabletop, but it’s a lot easier to get a picture of that disturbing idol than a 3-D replica anyway.

I’d also argue that props are more necessary in a VT-based game. RPGs are games of the imagination. The players need to be able to see the villian, the sand drifting across the temple steps, in their mind’s eye. Even if you’re using Skype or TeamSpeak so that you’ve got voice interaction, the GM’s at adisadvantage. Quality issues, latency issues, etc., make it difficult to convey the proper mood. A page from the forbidden tome, or a cryptic telegram, or a picture of a disturbing idol can help the players sink into the game.

Umm…so what about the madness? Didn’t your title sort of promise us madness?

Indeed. Recall that I mentioned my stumbling upon a site dedicated to Lovecraftian horror roleplaying? The Cthulhu Lives site, run by the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society (HPLHS), is a great source of props for Lovecraftian horror or other pulp settings. They have a wide array of PDFs like coroner’s toe-tags, library cards, and telegrams. Even better, they have an impressive collection of fonts for creating your own telegrams or newspaper articles or forbidden texts. A good bit of this is even free. If you’re playing Call of Cthulhu, this stuff is perfect. Even if you’re playing something else, the fonts are pretty appropriate for a Savage Worlds’ Rippers or Solomon Kane setting, and some of them would work quite well for wizardly tomes in a traditional fantasy campaign.

Madness Unbound!

As excited as I was to have found this treasure trove, I was concerned about the licensing. Cthulhu Lives is a live action RPG, and the props were meant to be printed. The license’s prohibitions on distributing electronic copies seemed to rule out use of the Cthulhu Archives’ material with a virtual tabletop. I saw this as a real loss for the VT gaming community, and I didn’t want to point you to a site full of great material that you couldn’t use without violating the owner’s copyright. I’m happy to report that I’ve been in contact with the HPLHS and they’re eager to have VT gamers using their material. To that end, they’re issuing their material under a Creative Commons license, which will essentially cover GMs and players out there who want to use the stuff non-commercially. It will likely be some time before the new licensing is reflected on all their material, and I haven’t seen an announcement about the new licensing on their site yet, so please contact them if you have concerns about using their material.

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